A little diamond smuggling to brighten your day

I got an unexpected break from refugee issues in Tanzania when I made a brief, surreal foray into the world of gem smuggling.

Mary Wiltenburg
The street scene near the Travertine Hotel in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, not far from the slum neighborhood where Neema lives.

I got an unexpected break from refugee issues in Tanzania when I made a brief, surreal foray into the world of gem smuggling.It started at the front desk of the Travertine Hotel, where Aloisia, my translator, suggested I relocate after my first few nights in Dar es Salaam. She scorned the first place I stayed, the Swiss Garden Hotel, a lovely place whose clientele seemed to consist of interesting Europeans in town on a variety of business, tropical medicine being the favorite."Too many mzungus," was Aloisia's verdict. The Travertine, she said, would be closer to Neema (who, you may recall, lives in a slum ), cheaper, and "more authentic."Indeed. The towels and sheets were gray and emitted a noticeable musk, and the electrical outlet covers were worryingly charred. But the staff was engaging and curious, and the front desk was fitted with two armchairs where guests were invited to sit and chat while waiting for keys, receipts, change, laundry, and pretty much anything else we asked for. Asa result, I had a number of interesting conversations there - especially with the main clerk, a baby-faced young man named Innocent Silvery.On this evening, I went down to use the computer in the lobby, in an increasingly desperate attempt to buy a ticket to Kigoma, on the other side of the country, where I went to visit two refugee camps. On the way, I stopped to say hi to Innocent."Someone is looking for you. The other mzungus," is how I recall him putting it. "There's another one?" I asked."Two," said Innocent solemnly, gesturing to the computer: "there."Sure enough, over in the restaurant area, a tanned white man with close-cropped hair and a safari vest was holding court at a table full of Africans. He said he'd seen me around and wanted to say hello - then introduced me to his partner, nearby on the computer, before resuming his conversation in hushed French.His partner was a leonine man, approaching middle age. He had a strong tan, dark hair, a hard-to-place accent - and a young Tanzanian bodyguard, who was sitting beside him at the hotel's single computer. They had been conferring excitedly about something on the screen; when I arrived, they turned that excitement on me. Unclear whether theirinterest was journalistic or otherwise. After a brief accounting, I asked what the man, Alex, was doing in Tanzania."Trading," he said.This, it turned out, meant gemstones, which he said he and his partner had come to Tanzania to find. They'd just spent a long day in Moshi, near where Bill Clinton Hadam's mom Dawami grew up, and had bought a load of rubies they were happy with. The trip had them hopping all over Africa, looking for various gems. Alex told me they found their stones with the help of a European man they knew, who had designed a computer program that uses satellite imaging to map the globe and look for likely deposits of valuable stuff.Unlikely as this all seemed, it's the kind of encounter I would usually love - not to mention, a possible story. But that night I was feeling foul after subsisting for days on that bizarre traveler's diet of nothing-that-has-to-be-washed, and worried about the plane. I was not in the mood - even when the plot thickened, and the man gave me a businesscard from a Washington, D.C.-area company that apparently sells restaurant rotisseries.But something about him and the bodyguard made me hesitate to say: "Are you done emailing or what?"Instead, I asked: "How do you get the stones out of the country once you find them."Oh, he said, that's the challenge. Rubies and small stones you sew into the back hem of your pants, where border officials never check. Big stones - like the 10-karat diamond his partner had bought earlier in the week - you swallowed. "Gold dust is harder," he said."I know what you mean," I joked, thinking: There's no way this guy is for real.Finally, he offered me the computer. I accepted gratefully. As he got up, the screen froze, and he left me to shut the machine down and reboot.I sat down and found myself looking into his gmail account, and a message whose subject line was: "GOLD DUST.""Alex," it read, "there is gold dust in Ghana!"Travel for this project's Africa reporting was funded in part by a grant from The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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